Budget Hero: Election Edition gives Americans updated tool to tackle debt

Dave Gustafson
Public Insight Network
Budget Hero: Election Edition logo

Are you a Budget Hero? Find out at http://www.budgethero.org

Congress has a brevity problem, Jim Krajec says.

Krajec lives in Oklahoma, where he’s an aerospace engineer — and an independent voter. He  says he’s pored over the thousands of pages in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and health reform bills — he wanted to understand what the documents contained and how much the programs they laid out might cost.

“Eighty percent of it is fluff and legal jargon,” Krajec, 55, said. ”The ‘heretofores’ and ‘whereases’? Just skip over those.”

The hardest part of getting through the documents was sifting out which parts really mattered, he said.

“Once I got 3,000 pages under my belt, I thought: ‘That’s absolutely ridiculous,’” he said. “I started re-reading the Constitution and what we should be doing as a government. It fits on a few pieces of A4-sized paper. Why do I need 1,700 pages of jargon to say ‘Here’s what I want to do with the money to keep the economic recovery moving in the right direction’?”

He doesn’t.

Budget Hero, an online game created in 2008 by the Public Insight Network team at American Public Media, lets players research the pros and cons of taxes and government programs and allows them to better understand how those things might affect the federal budget.

Starting this week, Budget Hero’s new 2012 election edition will allow players to see how their priorities compare to those of the fiscal policies championed by the presidential candidates.

At the beginning of the game, Budget Hero players can choose up to three of 10 badges that they’d like to earn. ‘Badges’ in Budget Hero reflect a player’s overall budgeting priorities. Players then try to earn their badges by selecting ‘cards,’ which allow them to keep or cut a variety of federal programs. At the end of the game, players can see the long-term effects of the cards they’ve selected, and whether the decisions they made when playing their cards earned them any badges.

Budget Hero’s latest version includes three new badges: one for each major party presidential candidate and a January Surprise badge focused on the “fiscal cliff” — the budget cuts and tax rollbacks set to begin in January unless Congress acts to stave them off. The game also contains 27 new cards, which include policies related to programs like food stamps and Medicaid, as well as those related to corporate taxes and pork-barrel spending. Another 23 cards have been updated since the last version of the game was released in July 2011.

Jim Krajec has played multiple versions of Budget Hero — and he said the most recent update is even more challenging than its previous iterations. Since its 2008 launch, Budget Hero has been played nearly 1.3 million times.

“I was not able to push the debt out as far this time. Both times I successfully reduced governmental influence by reducing the budget allowance in certain areas,” Krajec said about his most recent Budget Hero play. “I suspected I would have seen similar results, but the task was harder this time around achieving the same result.”

While most Budget Heroes remain anonymous, Krajec and more than 49,000 others have joined the Public Insight Network as they played the game, allowing them to regularly share their insights with journalists across the country. The game also allows players to anonymously compare their budgets according to political affiliation, gender, household income and ZIP code, which has created a valuable set of demographic data. That information has allowed American Public Media to analyze how people from different walks of life view federal spending priorities.

That data – as well as interviews with Krajec and other Budget Hero players – demonstrates Americans’ capacity to understand the complexity of the budget and, when given real information and real numbers, to make tradeoffs – even when they choices they make run contrary to their own interests.

“Protecting my career path shouldn’t be my vote in how I’d spend defense money,” said Krajec. (His paycheck is partially financed by his company’s military contracts.) “I’d prefer we use more diplomatic means than military force,” he added. (There is an option in the Budget Hero game that allows players to increase spending on diplomacy and foreign aid.)

“But if we do that,” he said, “That will likely reduce defense spending, and that could affect how much work I have.”

John Sheats

John Sheats

Likewise, John Sheats, a 32-year-old real estate agent in West Palm Beach, Fla., says he favors getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction, another option in Budget Hero. While increased amounts of home purchases might bring him more income in the short term, he believes that the tax break gives a bad incentive to many people who can’t afford a mortgage. Those incentives, he says, interfere with free-market principles that he says could have helped the housing market avoid a collapse.

Heather Llewellyn, who runs a commercial photography business with husband in Grass Valley, Calif., said Budget Hero taught her there must be give-and-take in federal spending, but she said we shouldn’t scrimp on science and education funding since those are investments in our future. The game, she says, made her a more skeptical news consumer and citizen as she’s listening to politicians’ speeches during the election season.

“I can tell pretty quickly when someone is not saying anything, and that says a lot to me about who they are and their level of sincerity and their level of being willing to work with other people,” she says.

Llewellyn says she thinks the United States needs a strong social safety net, but she’s concerned about the long-term viability of our entitlement programs.

“Medicare can’t go the way it’s been going,” she says. “My 80-year-old father-in-law thinks nothing of having an ambulance come and pick him up a few times a year to take him to the hospital if he gets hurt. He says he’s paid into the system and should be able to use it. … But for my husband and I, we’re in our early 50s. What happens down the road when I’m my father-in-law’s age? We’re not going to be able to call an ambulance willy-nilly.”

John Sikking, 41, of Washington, D.C., does civilian and defense contracting. As he puts it, he helps government agencies buy things – particularly information technology services. But he also sees plenty of ways that the government could tighten its budget. He suggests not forcing an agency’s annual budget to be dependent upon spending every dollar in the budget from the previous year. That, he says, creates the wrong incentive to spend unnecessarily. Sikking has played multiple versions of Budget Hero, and says he’s used it as a conversation-starter with his wife and other family members.

“I liked being confronted with all the difficult choices,” he says. “I felt sorry for the politicians who are trying to make these decisions and stay elected.”

In the coming months, APM and Patchwork Nation will continue the conversation with Budget Hero players to learn more: How do Americans want their government to operate? How would they like their tax dollars to be spent? We will also look for interesting trends in the data we’ve gathered from the choices Budget Hero players have made as they play the game. You can follow our work here, at budgethero.org.

If you were in charge of the federal budget, what programs and taxes would you keep? Which would you cut? Give the new Budget Hero: Election Edition a try, and then tell us about your experience.

Dave Gustafson Reporter
Public Insight Network
Dave Gustafson is a Public Insight Network reporter -- and the first-ever reporter hired to do journalism out of gamification. He embedded with Patchwork Nation, a project of the Jefferson Institute, to report around the Budget Hero game in June. Born in an Industrial Metropolis, he grew up in Service Worker Center and Campus and Careers community types. He now lives in a Monied Burb near Washington, D.C. Most recently, Dave was acting managing editor for digital news at the PBS NewsHour.